Brand Backlash: The Hazards of Heavy Handed Marketing

I don’t know what it was, but SXSW this year felt really sponsored. Don’t get me wrong, there have always been names attached to lounges and stages in the past. You can’t gather some of the most influential taste-makers, trend-setters and early-adopters in a central location and expect brands not to be everywhere, but there was decidedly more discussion about it this year. I think it might have had a little something to do with this:

(Photo via

Is that a four-story tall Doritos vending machine, you ask? Yes. Yes it is. That would be the Doritos Jacked stage, erected to introduce two new flavors of chip in a new style (bigger, thicker, bolder). I’m sure the intent of the stage was, “You like Turquoise Jeep?! You will LOVE new Doritos Jacked!” However, the Jacked stage has directed so much attention to the sponsorship aspect of SXSW that it’s been rubbing people, notably the musicians involved with the festival, the wrong way.

Josh Tillman of Father John Misty has launched his own personal vendetta against the brand, calling the machine a “golden calf” in the middle of downtown. He even took to Twitter for his cause, promoting a mock SXSW panel on the Nautical Integration of Deep Sea Marketing.

(via @FatherJohnMisty)

But Doritos isn’t the only offender. Other musicians have jested at the seemingly increased sponsorship aspect this year as well. The War On Drugs nudged the fest in this tweet:

(via @warondrugsjams)

And Wavves made several comments regarding Taco Bell during his set at the Taco Bell sponsored Hype Hotel/Feed The Beat Showcase on Saturday night, including “Someone fed the beat too much.” He even had a couple of the complimentary tacos on hand to throw into the audience (but not before unwrapping and taking a bite of them).

The Brixton, a popular east side haunt, threw in their two cents as well (note the irony that the board itself is branded):

(sign at The Brixton)

So it begs the question: how much is too much? Is jamming a product into a popular thing worth backlash if it doesn’t work? I think the jig is up. Consumers are moving from not only being unreceptive to brands attaching themselves to things they like to being skeptical of them. As far as the vending machine goes, did it work? Depends on what “worked” is. Were people talking about it? Yes. Was it positive? Usually no. Did it move from being a novelty to a punchline almost immediately? Absolutely.

So what do we do as advertisers? I think the biggest thing we can do when choosing partnerships is ask ourselves two questions:

1) Does it make sense?

Are the audiences the same? Is there a brand connection already established?

2) Do I have to yell it? 

Chances are if you answer “yes” to this, it probably doesn’t work as well as you wanted. A smart connection can be subtle and still incredibly effective.

I could probably keep rambling about this, but how about we open it up. Were you at SXSW? Did it feel especially corporate this year? Are you unresponsive when a partnership feels too deliberate?

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